Dream Small: The Joy of an Unaccomplished Life

dream-smallWe were probably watching cartoons, or sitting in a Kindergarten class, the first time we were urged to live a life defined by accomplishments. It begins early, this cultural indoctrination. We are told to live life in such a way that each chapter in our biography is something to boast about: “Chad’s Football Team Wins State,” “Chad Graduates with Honors,” “Chad Lands a Job with a Fortune 500 Company,” “Chad Promoted to Management,” and so forth. Whatever path you follow, you are told to dream big, to be all that you can be, to earn trophies that serve as icons of what’s made your life a life worth living.

None of these accomplishments come easy, or without sacrifices. When I was working toward my Ph.D., I spent four days a week apart from my family. And when I was home, I was present in body but absent in mind, always thinking about the next paper I had to write, the next book I had to read. If you’re moving up the corporate ladder, saying no to upper management is not an option, even if that means you miss your daughter’s dance recital or your son’s playoff game to attend yet another meeting or close yet another deal. To fulfill that dream of hearing your song on the radio, or playing for a professional team, or becoming a tenured professor, plan on losing lots of sleep, lots of family time, lots of little moments along the way that all add up to a substantial part of your life.

In the end, you’ll have your degree, your career, your celebrity status, or your six figure income. Your big dreams will come true. You will be an accomplished person, so it’ll all be worth it. Or will it?

The answer to that question depends on what you want to define your life. There was a time when I would have said, “Yes, by all means, the sacrifices are all worth it.” But that was a time when I was blind to how much I was missing. If I could rewind my life, and go back twenty years, I would dream small and relish the joys of an unaccomplished life.

“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life,” St. Paul urges (1 Thess 4:11) in what is arguably one of the most un-American verses in all the New Testament. Those words have become almost a mantra for me. I must say them over and over to silence the lifelong indoctrination I have received from a culture that worships those who do big things and urges us all to do the same. “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” These words are, I believe, a call for a radical reorientation of our lives away from dreaming big to dreaming small.

To lead a quiet life doesn’t mean that you lower your expectations as much as you lower your gaze. Instead of looking up to the next accomplishment, the next rung on the ladder, you look down at the daily life you live, the children God has given you, the spouse by your side, your aging parents, your dear friends, the poor and needy—all those “little things” you miss when you’re always looking up to the “next big thing” in your life.

I am forty four years old this year. The first half of my adult life was spent dreaming big, acquiring trophies that now gather dust and serve as nothing more than icons of lost loves and lost years. I can’t get those years back. I can’t undo the damage my ambition caused. But I can make it my ambition to lead a quiet life from now on.

I will seek joy, and find it, in those little moments that add up to a lifetime. I hope and pray you do the same.

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7 thoughts on “Dream Small: The Joy of an Unaccomplished Life

  1. I think that the goal-setting has become a particularly siren song for women these days. Even the President has said that women must abandon the home to be successful, whatever that means. Women need to hear this, too, perhaps especially. Christian vocation is not unimportant.

  2. Fred W. on said:

    Any suggestions on how to teach this to our children while still encouraging them to do their best with their gifts. It seems to be what the world calls successful is absolutely works/righteousness. While the spiritual life is all gift. How can this be reconciled in the simul of aeons? Hope this makes some since. Help if you can.

    • Fred, I urge my children to do whatever task they are given to the best of their ability, all the while acknowledging that all they do is a gift from God. And that no matter what career path they choose in life, to remember that their vocations as father or mother, husband or wife, are what truly define them and ultimately bring them joy.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement. I’ve had big dreams too, though my life has been hampered by some things that came up. I am thirty years old, and I’m realizing now that there are more important things than my own accomplishments. So, I have ten years on ya! lol. God bless…

  4. Zane R. on said:

    Thank you Chad. I too, drank the Kool-Aid growing up. My ambitions got me nowhere, but the failing led me to Christ.

  5. Kelly Tomhave on said:

    Loved this one!

  6. Well Chad. Perhaps your dreams and goals were also God given. Perhaps you have lived your life exactly as you were meant to live it. Doesn’t our Father in heaven give us the desires of our heart. No guilt or shame in living an accomplished life. No guilt or shame in pursing your dreams. Congratulations on running your race well.

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